No safe passage for Syrians: fleeing armed conflict and rights violations at home and overseas

The international community has failed Syrian families by denying them safe passage, but the U.N. Global Compacts for Refugees and Migrants provide an opportunity to change that.

Rebecca Balis
24 May 2017

Syrian Turkoman escaping the bombs cross at Oncupinar Border Crossing, Kilis, Turkey in February 2016. Depo Photos/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

If there is any country where the lack of safe passage has resulted in deplorable living conditions, it is Syria. Families have been displaced multiple times throughout the seven-year war, with millions driven out of the country to make do, either temporarily or permanently, elsewhere. Those still stuck inside Syria have no safe passage to leave the country. At best, they have recourse to limited, temporary responses to meet their growing protection needs.

Despite the failure of achieving peace in Syria, the U.N. Summit for Migrants and Refugees, held last September, provides an opportunity to reframe how we view the peaceful civilians who want to escape armed conflict. The proposed U.N. Global Compacts for Refugees and Migrants should extend international protection to more individuals affected by conflict and hold states accountable when they restrict safe passage and return refugees to states that fail to offer protection.

The Syrian example demonstrates how the current system leaves families with no options. Reframing humanitarian protection for those fleeing armed conflict and persecution is more essential than ever.

Fleeing Syria and lack of safe passage

What happens to families who want to leave Syria so that their children can grow up away from war? There is almost no ability to get safe passage out of Syria, even for individuals in need of medical care or for those with family members who have received protection elsewhere. These families are classified as internally-displaced persons (IDPs), a population explicitly left out of the negotiations that led to the New York Declaration, but that is likely double the number of who have left.

At both government and opposition checkpoints, simply lacking identification can force a family back to their town, or result in arbitrary detention in prisons.

Movement within Syria have been severely restricted. Many parts of the country are afflicted by relentless and indiscriminate bombing. Some families have been living in besieged locations with no way out for years. Others have tried to reach safety, but the war spread to the villages where they resettled. At checkpoints carried out by both armed groups and government forces, simply lacking identification can force a family back to their town, or result in arbitrary detention in prisons where they potentially face torture and horrific abuse.

Even if families do brave the fighting inside Syria to access a border crossing, borders are no longer open to Syrians who try to flee today. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians live in life-threatening conditions or with highly restricted rights on either side of international borders. Those stuck in Syria live in makeshift camps, from where there are regular reports of violence, exploitation of forced migrants, and lack of basic services, such as safe water and healthcare.

Turkey, which generously allowed in an estimated 2.7 million Syrians, severely curtailed the number of new arrivals since December 2015. At times it has resorted to extreme measures to enforce the closures, including shooting at and killing Syrians attempting to cross the border to safety. There have been repeated reports of Turkey pushing individuals back to the countries they fled without due process. Syrians who manage to cross into Turkey do not receive refugee status as asylum seekers, but rather receive more a limited status called ‘temporary protection’. This affords them some rights, but they do not have the right to freedom of movement, amongst other basic human rights. Turkey has increasingly used detention, including of minors, to hold Syrians fleeing persecution.

Learn more about the protection of Syrians in Turkey.

Similarly, after generously hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians (more than 650,000 at last count), Jordan closed its border indefinitely, precluding many more tens of thousands of Syrians from crossing their southern border to relative safety.

Building safe passage into the global compact

The international community has been unable to protect Syrians inside Syria or those who risk their lives and seek protection elsewhere. On the same day that world leaders met at the U.N. Summit last fall, the carefully-brokered Syria ceasefire blew apart with the bombing of 31 aid trucks and the deaths of 12 aid workers, underscoring the danger for those still stuck inside who have no safe passage. Meanwhile, the lack of safe passage and little hope for peace forced thousands of individuals to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. Thousands died in the process. Those who made it have waited for a full year to have asylum claims processed, living in tents susceptible to flooding and inadequate for winter. The U.S. has refused to support refugees from overseas, so the prospect of finding a semi-permanent home as the war in Syria continues is increasingly limited.

Amidst these systemic failures, the U.N. Compacts on Refugees and Migrants provide opportunities to require safe passage for populations fleeing conflict with no alternative for safety. The dangers Syrians currently face while attempting to reach protection illustrate two barriers to safe passage: 1) international law is too limited in who it protects; and 2) border enforcement disregards the right to protection and flouts international law by returning refugees to unsafe countries.

1) Require international protection for those fleeing armed conflict

Many Syrians may not fall under the limited definition of a refugee based on the 1951 Refugee Convention – someone fleeing persecution on account of nationality, ethnicity, religion, political opinion, or a protected social group. While humanitarian protection, resettlement, and temporary protection schemes exist, accessing those schemes is uncertain and dangerous, and impossible while still inside a conflict zone with no safe passage out.

The compacts should ensure that states are responsible for dangers that migrants face as a result of migration controls operating inside and outside their territories.

The compacts should extend protection to those fleeing armed conflict through increased humanitarian protection and resettlement, including for IDPs inside conflict zones. States should further commit to policies that draw from Turkey’s temporary protection policy, which gives status and some rights, but do so for the duration of armed conflicts. The compacts may adopt as guidance the International Migrants Bill of Rights framework that ensures basic protections for all migrants, regardless of status. These requirements would secure basic rights and access to legal status for individuals fleeing armed conflict but who do not meet the definition of a refugee.

2) Hold states accountable for risks imposed through border controls

States ‘manage’ refugee flows by shutting borders and trying to push back refugee populations in violation of their obligations to provide access to asylum. For example, Turkey violates these obligations by closing borders and attacking those who may try and cross while they face other dangers inside Syria. The EU does so by designating Turkey as a ‘safe third country,’ despite the dangers refugees may face there.  

The compacts should ensure that states are responsible for dangers that migrants face as a result of migration controls inside and outside their territories. Agreements like those discussed more recently at the Malta Conference should only occur where those fleeing armed conflict are guaranteed to have certain rights. Where they are abused or sent back (a violation of the non-refoulement provision in refugee law), the destination state should bear responsibility. This means immediately ending obviously questionable ‘safe third country’ designations and resettling refugees or offering increased humanitarian protection.  

The world recognises the need to improve the international migration regime. The lack of safe passage for Syrians highlights the failures of the current system, and will be a stain on our generation for the failed efforts to provide protection for those fleeing persecution. These recommendations would better protect civilians fleeing armed conflict and end harsh and ineffective border controls that force families to make life-threatening choices.

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